- The Washington Times - Monday, September 8, 2003

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — Some of the nation’s best, but little known, forensic scientists will offer free or discounted help to short-staffed police departments faced with mounting “cold case” loads.

About 200,000 homicides have gone unsolved in the United States since 1960, and crime statistics show that each year these cold cases grow by about another 6,000.

Max Houck and colleagues with the newly formed Institute for Cold Case Evaluation aim to slow that accumulation, providing police with free or discounted assistance from at least two dozen of the country’s top behind-the-scenes forensic scientists.

“They’re not publicly known names,” Mr. Houck said Thursday. “They spend more time in the lab than in front of the camera, but these are the people who really do the work.”

Police often get recognition from victims’ families, while the lawyers get recognition at trial, Mr. Houck said. But it’s the scientists who often get what’s needed for a conviction.

Mr. Houck, a forensic anthropologist who worked at the FBI crime lab in the District, created the nonprofit ICCE through a business incubator program at West Virginia University, where he teaches.

The institute will begin seeking clients next week in Las Vegas at a convention of the International Association of Homicide Investigators, eventually pairing them with experts who review cases.

Though more police departments are forming cold case squads, most of the nearly 18,000 nationwide still lack the manpower. Those that have squads have varying resources, Mr. Houck said.

In some, several officers work full-time on unsolved cases.

“At other agencies, they just take the last retiree, hire him back as a contractor and give him a desk and a phone because that’s all they have,” he said.

Often, an investigator develops a new lead, identifies a suspect and gathers evidence “through sheer pluck and determination,” then gets it to a lab, Mr. Houck said.

However, “This is not going to be high on the lab’s list of priorities,” he said. “This just goes into the queue.”

The ICCE can help by recommending another expert or a private lab to examine physical evidence.

“We have a very broad stable of experts to choose from,” with expertise in everything from firearms and pathology to entomology, Mr. Houck said.

The institute also has a Web site and information center, with a free electronic newsletter and secure chat rooms where investigators can swap stories and suggestions.

“They’re not talking to each other now, mainly because they don’t know each other exists,” Mr. Houck said.

The Web site also will let the public search through cases and make donations that will help fund the investigations to solve them.

Business director John Paul Jones said the ICCE is similar to the Philadelphia-based Vidocq Society, an exclusive group of experts that meets monthly to tackle an unsolved case at no charge.

But the ICCE is more ambitious, hoping to handle at least 10 cases a month instead of one or two, Mr. Jones said. As demand grows, the institute will likely add more experts, all with carefully evaluated credentials.

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